Our Five Loaves and Two Fish, Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), July 30, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
17th Sunday of OT, Year B
July 23, 2006
2Kings4:42-44; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15

1) We have been focusing all year on the Gospel of St. Mark. If we continued in this progression, we would have tackled this week St. Mark’s version of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, the only miracle of Jesus recounted in all four Gospels. But the Church substitutes for us here St. John’s account of the same miracle, because St. John shows how Jesus used it as the launching pad for his long homily on the Eucharist, which will occupy our thoughts for most of the rest of the summer. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish was a true miracle, something that happened in Capernaum, during the time of the Passover, one year before the Last Supper. But Jesus used that miracle as a sign of what he was intending to do in the Eucharist. Over the next several homilies, we will focus on the Eucharist. Today we’ll focus on the miracle itself.

2) This miracle of the loaves and the fish teaches us very clearly about how God generally works and what we expects from us. When Jesus saw the infamished crowds, he could have easily done a miracle from scatch. He who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing, he who fed the Israelites in the desert with miraculous manna and quails from heaven, could easily have satiated the hungry multitude all by himself. He didn’t need human assistance. But that isn’t the way he acted. He first asked his disciples what their resources were. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip replied that not even six months’ wages — say $20,000 by today’s standards — would have been able to feed the crowd of about 5000 people. The only one who had anything was a young boy, who had five loaves and two fish, food that wouldn’t even be enough to feed a typical family here in New Bedford. The Lord started with the young boy’s generosity. Even though strictly speaking he didn’t need anything to work a miracle, he wanted to involve them in the miracle. He wanted to start with the best and the most that people had, and bring it to completion.

3) This is the way God generally operates with us. He could do it everything by himself, but he knows that wouldn’t be ultimately good for us. Just like a parent knows that it’s not good to do everything for a child, but often gives a child a project and helps the child complete it, so God out of love wants to give us the joy and dignity of being cooperators with him in what he’s doing for us and for others. Look at the wonderful story of the apostles. Jesus wanted to involve these simple men in the most important mission ever, the proclamation of the kingdom of God and the salvation of the human race. He could have done it all himself. He could have stayed here on earth until the end of time, traversed every land, preached and cured by himself, he wanted them to share in this mission. He gave them his message and his authority. They weren’t necessarily talented men, they were, for the most part, blue-collar folks, sinners just like us, but they were capable of saying yes to God, to offering to him their good will, and all the talents he gave them — whether they were a meager one loaf and one fish, or many more — and allowing the Lord to multiply their offerings by his divine power.

4) God wants to the same from us. Regardless of how many gifts and blessings the Lord has given us, he wants us to give them back to him so that he can do far greater things with them. We might have received only a minimal education in the faith through CCD. Without God, this wouldn’t be much to help our friends come to the Lord. But together with the Lord, the Lord can use this to make us a great apostle, like he did with St. Peter. We might not be very gifted as a teacher, but with the Lord, we might be the best of teachers to our children about what is most important of all. We might not be have much in the way of material possessions, but when we offer them to the Lord, he might use them to help save others’ lives in this world or in the next. We might be advanced in years or very ill and think that we don’t have much still to give, but offered to the Lord, they can be incredibly fruitful.

5) One very clear and unforgettable example of this I learned from Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, a Vietnamese prelate who died in 2002, whom I had the privilege to get to know when he was the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. As soon as the Communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, they arrested him, who was then the Archbishop of Saigon, and threw him into prison. For 13 years he was incarcerated, nine of them in solitary confinement. The day after he was arrested, the Communists allowed him to write his family for what he needed. He asked them to send some clothes, toothpaste, a torch and then his “stomach medicine.” He had no stomach ailment at the time, but his family knew that that was the way to smuggle in some secret wine. Every night, in darkness, he would put a very small piece of bread, three drops of wine from his “stomach medicine” bottle and one drop of water on the altar of his hand and celebrate the Mass from memory. He made a small tabernacle out of an old cigarette case to bring the Eucharist, when he could, to those Catholics under arrest in the camp. His guards maltreated him. He was often starved for days and taunted. Like anyone in such a situation, he was led almost to the point of despair. He cried out to the Lord in prayer, asking him what sense it made for him to spend so much time in prison. He wanted to be out, preaching, teaching, sanctifying and encouraging the Lord’s flock, helping them to keep the faith. He desperately wanted to be doing something, rather than in a filthy, damp prison cell apparently doing nothing. But in prayer, the Lord led him to meditate on the passage from today’s Gospel of the young boy with the five loaves and two fish. He wrote about his discovery in a 1997 book called “Five Loaves and Two Fish.” Thuan recounted his prayerful realization that he might not be able to give the Lord very much, but he could start by giving him all that he had left — the little attention he was able to muster, his daily Mass, his sufferings and sacrifices — knowing that when they were offered to the Lord in the same spirit as that young boy, there was no telling what the Lord would be able to do with them. He began to make use of little scraps of paper from old calendars to write jot down whatever spiritual insights the Lord gave him. He started to pass them to a young boy who would pass by his cell, and the young boy would secretly smuggle them to his parents, who copied them, compiled them and eventually published them as a book called “The Road to Hope,” which had a huge influence in strengthening the faith of the Vietnamese throughout the country. He started to see that he could offer up even the taunts and humiliations of the guards to the Lord each day, by trying to respond to them with kindness and love. In response to their contempt, he offered to try to help them, by teaching them foreign languages, Latin, French and English. These small deeds of love eventually led, like drips of water on a rock, to some in-roads and much later Thuan had the joy of welcoming those guards into the Church. While what he was doing — hidden away in a secretive solitary confinement — seemed so little in the face of the great issues confronting his country and his Church, he knew he wasn’t helpless, because with the Lord, such little gifts could bring about great miracles. His faithful witness to Christ in prison, in the face of all types of hardships, was what the Lord used perhaps more than any other to help keep the Vietnamese faithful in the face of a brutal Communist regime.

6) We’re called to follow Cardinal Van Thuan in this daily offering of whatever we have to the Lord, in giving him whatever we have so that the Lord can use it to feed others. Whether it’s a lot or a little, if we give it all to the Lord, the Lord will multiply its effects. And the most fitting place to offer this gift is in union with Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass. This is where the Lord wants us to unite all our gifts, “making up what is lacking in [his] sufferings for the sake of his body, the Church.” Christ’s sacrifice from the Upper Room and the Cross — in which we participate live in the Mass — was offered to the Father only once, but what makes this sacrifice of the Mass today different than last Sunday is because OUR sacrifice, united to Christ’s perfect sacrifice, is different. We’re called to unite ourselves, our gifts, our hopes, our sufferings, our desires, to Christ’s. That’s what the beautiful dialogue prayer at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist means: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that this sacrifice, yours and mine, may be made acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” We’re each and all called to unite our sacrifices of love to Christ’s supreme sacrifice and offer them together to God the Father. Sometimes people complain, “I don’t get anything out of the Mass.” Bishop Sheen in response used to cry aloud, “Well, that’s because you’re not putting anything into it!” The more we put into the Mass, the more we will receive, because it’s only when we’re empty of ourselves that the Lord can fill us. The reason why we take the collection right before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins is because that is the time in the Mass when explicitly are called to put trustingly our own five loaves and two fish in the hands of the Lord. The Lord calls us to be generous here, just like the young boy who gave the Lord, not just a portion of what he had, but everything. We’re called not just to put a few dollars from our surplus into the basket, but to put our whole selves in the basket, to throw ourselves spiritually on the paten with the bread and wine, as it is brought forward to be offered to God.

7) The Eucharist is the reality to which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish points. In the Eucharist, Jesus again takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it once more in a multiplication that is even more miraculous, stretching across the centuries, in every land, from the Upper Room to here at St. Anthony’s Church. This is a sacrifice that has fed billions of God’s children and prepared them for the heavenly banquet. And in the very way Christ established it, he shows how he wanted our intimate involvement. We use not grain and grapes, but bread and wine, the “work of human hands,” because God intended from the beginning our own contribution in this one great sacrifice to the Father, this sacrifice of Christ together with His Mystical Body, the Church. This is the sacrifice of our salvation. As we prepare to share in this great and on-going miracle, let us ask the Lord to give us the courage and the generosity to offer our whole lives to him and his service, so that the Lord, in feeding us now, may use us and all we have to feed others. Praised be Jesus Christ!